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Ever since relegation from the Premier League back in 2011, Blackpool fans have been on a rollercoaster of emotions that had seen the club fall as far as League Two.
Many of us were surprised to see thousands of empty seats at Bloomfield Road last weekend when Blackpool took on Arsenal in the third round of the FA Cup, but why was Bloomfield Road, one of the most charming grounds in English football empty?
Well it’s down to a number of long running disputes that involves the eccentric owners the Oystons, a Latvian shareholder and the die-hard supporters who have seen their club torn apart.
So, let’s take a look at how Blackpool FC got in this mess, what the supporters have been trying to do to reclaim their club and what action the Football League has taken in order for Blackpool to get their house in order.
Introducing The Oystons
Since 1988 Blackpool have been owned by Owen Oyston, who made his money in the estate agency business in the 1960s and 70s. By the mid 1980s Oyston’s Estate Agents had become the largest firm of family-owned estate agents in the United Kingdom, just weeks before the 1987 stock market crash Oyston sold his business for £37 million to Royal Insurance.
Later in 1987, Oyston bought a large stake in his boyhood team Blackpool FC and in May 1988 he purchased more shares becoming the outright owner of the then struggling Lancashire side.
Under Oyston’s stewardship Blackpool continued to languish in the lower leagues for much of the early 1990s. Then in February 1995 Owen Oyston was arrested and nine charges were brought against him, including four rape charges.
After three trials Oyston was convicted of the rape and indecent assault of a 16-year-old girl in 1991. Owen Oyston was jailed for six years on May 22nd, 1996. After his conviction Owen Oyston’s wife Vicki took over as chairperson of Blackpool FC whilst her husband was in prison.
During the trial Oyston claimed that he was the victim of a long running conspiracy by two government ministers and that a “very nasty campaign” had been waged against him.
Oyston continued to maintain his innocence and appealed his conviction, which he ultimately lost. In December 1999 three years and six months after his conviction Owen Oyston was released from prison and resumed his duties with Blackpool FC.
Owen Oyston had big plans for Blackpool, throughout much of the early 1990s he made promises of building a new stadium, however, these plans never came to fruition after his conviction and instead the redevelopment of the clubs Bloomfield Road took place throughout much of early 2000s after his release from prison.
With the club beginning to struggle financially, Owen Oyston approached Latvian businessman Valērijs Belokoņs to invest in the club. In May 2006, Belokoņs bought a 20% stake in Blackpool and became the club’s president.
Belokoņs arrival and Premier League football
Belokoņs invested heavily in the club, setting up a new transfer fund for then manager Ian Holloway. His investment payed off as the club were promoted to the Premier League one year sooner than the new chairman had predicted.
Blackpool’s first season in England’s top division in 40 years was ultimately unsuccessful as the club were returned to the Championship, however, their one season in the Premier League is particularly memorable for their attacking football and the entertaining antics of Ian Holloway.
After being relegated to the Championship, Blackpool continued to play their attacking football and once again reached the play-off finals, this time losing out to West Ham. Ian Holloway left the club a few months into the next season and Blackpool began to struggle both on and off the pitch.
Blackpool’s struggles where a mixture of bad footballing decisions, coupled with the dodgy dealings of the Oystons coming home to roost.
While Blackpool fans have known about the dealings of the Oyston family for years it finally became well known to general public in May 2015, when supporters staged an on-pitch protest about the actions and management style of the directors and owners, forcing the match against Huddersfield to be abandoned.
Then in September 2015 Belokoņs began legal action against the Oystons, alleging the transfer of millions of pounds away from the club’s accounts.
Since the beginning of the legal action in 2015, numerous high court cases have been fought between the Oystons and Valērijs Belokoņs. The most damning of all the high court’s findings was in November 2017 when Owen Oyston and his son Karl were found to have operated an “illegitimate stripping” of Blackpool FC, paying £26.77 million out of the club to companies they owned. The club was put up for sale shortly afterwards.
The Oystons were ordered to pay £31.27 million to Valērijs Belokoņs for his shares, they have yet to pay any of that money back and it is yet unknown how this will be resolved.
While Valērijs Belokoņs has been looking to purchase the club outright from the Oystons he is unable to become the outright owner of the club as he was convicted of fraud a few years ago in Kyrgyzstan, therefore Belokoņs fails the EFL’s fit and proper persons test which was established in 2004.
Despite this, in March 2018, Belokoņs stated that he was “working with the EFL to provide it with the necessary information to show why I should be considered fit and proper”.
Is the future bright and orange?
This mess has been rumbling on for a number of years now and unfortunately for the die-hard supporters of the club it looks like the matter will remain unresolved for the foreseeable future.
Blackpool supporters have fought back somewhat staging boycotts of the teams matches at Bloomfield Road, refusing to buy anything associated with the club as the money could be used by the Oystons to payback the debt owed to Valērijs Belokoņs.
The Blackpool Supporters Trust have also been asking visiting supporters to not buy any food or drink when they attend matches at Bloomfield Road in order to stop the flow of money from coming into the football club.
Ultimately the situation at Blackpool can only be described in one term – ‘shitshow’. And after listening to interviews with supporters one could only have sympathy for them, as they are good football people who just want to go and support their local club and are sick and tired of having to deal with the likes of the Oystons.
The supporters feel that they have been terribly let down by the FA and the EFL, who they feel have had their head in the sand regarding a situation which doesn’t look like it will be resolved anytime soon.